Perry Anderson is one of the most prominent English Marxist historians of the twentieth century, and the essay Origins of the Present Crisis is one of his most famous works. It is an attempt to understand why "British society (was) in the throes of a profound yet cryptic crisis, undramatic in appearance, but pervasive in its reverberations". At the time of the writing of Origins, the early 1960s, there was a widespread feeling in Britain that the country was in decline. Perhaps most visibly, the Empire was all but gone. Furthermore, there were "stagnant industries, starved schools, run-down cities, demoralized rulers, parochial outlooks." In Origins, Anderson tries to find the structural causes of this decline. Origins is still of interest because it raises important historiographical issues. In my opinion, it is a very good example of how a Marxist conception of history can lead astray.
"England had the first, most mediated and least pure bourgeois revolution of any major European country."
Anderson argues that the English Civil War of 1640-1649 was not a straightforward conflict of the rising bourgeoisie with the established aristocracy. Nor was it fundamentally a conflict over religion, or the constitution. Anderson's description of what the Civil War actually was is characteristically vague:
... it was a clash between two segments of a landowning class, neither of which were direct crystallizations of opposed economic interests, but rather were partially contingent but predominantly intelligible lenses into which wider, more radically antagonistic social forces came into temporary and distorted focus. Furthermore, the ideological terms in which the struggle was conducted were largely religious, and hence still more dissociated from economic aspirations than political idioms normally are.
In other words - the Civil War was not a transparent conflict of the bourgeoisie against the aristocracy, since it was fought within the aristocracy. The fact that the war was fought out in religious terms means that there was an additional layer of superstructural factors clouding the real, objective, material interests that were at play. Ultimately, the Civil War was a bourgeois revolution, since the result was "a typically bourgeois rationalization of state and economy" and the bourgeoisie was the true beneficiary. But since the conflict was fought within the ruling class and the language used was that of religion, the war was a bourgeois revolution only "by proxy."
The influence of Marx in this argument is obvious. Anderson insists that even though the Civil War was seemingly about religion, such a view is "naive". Marx insists in his theory of history that phenomena in the superstructure - politics, religion, ideology and so forth - should be explained by reference to the society's economic base. Seemingly religious conflicts are actually not about religion, they are about economic forces masquerading as religious ones. Such a view has a certain strength - it avoids judging historical events merely by how the protagonists saw them. But it introduces a very serious problem. It assumes that religion, for instance, can never be the true cause of historical phenomena. There is no a priori ground for holding this view. It is open to Weber's argument in the Protestant Ethic that modern secular men cannot understand the fundamental importance of religion to people who lived before. Hence, Weber's approach of verstehen, attempting to understand historical events through empathizing with the participants, is important.
Anderson argues that the Civil War cleared the way for the flourishing of capitalism. And that in this sense, it was definitely a bourgeois revolution. But it did not alter the social structure of English society. It left the aristocracy in power. By Anderson's definition it seems that for the bourgeois revolution to be pure, the bourgeoisie should have gained political power. But this is problematic. In Germany, for instance, capitalism was supremely succesful in the late 19th century, indeed more succesful than in Britain. It has repeated this success in the 20th century. But in Germany, capitalism was inaugurated under the political control of the old feudal class, the Junkers. Germany's 'bourgeois revolution' was surely at least as impure as England's, but that did not cause the kind of problems for German capitalism that Anderson thinks the impurity of the English revolution caused for English capitalism.
Furthermore, Anderson argues that the English 'bourgeois revolution' did not produce a durable ideological legacy. In France, the revolutionary bourgeois language about the universal rights of man had a lasting impact, and it was a heritage that the French socialists could draw on when attempting their own revolution. In England, Anderson argues, no such legacy was available. This is one of his arguments for the weakness of the English socialist movement. But one should remember that the English civil war did produce Hobbes, and the Glorious Revolution produced Locke. Though Hobbes was certainly no liberal, he has had a lasting impact on liberal thought. Locke, the bourgeois par excellence, produced an admirable philosophy stressing the natural rights of all men. Why the English working class could not use the heritage of English bourgeois liberalism when the French could utilize their own intellectual traditions, is left unanswered by Anderson.
"England experienced the first industrial revolution, in a period of counter-revolutionary war, producing the earliest proletariat when socialist theory was least formed and available, and an industrial bourgeoisie polarized from the start towards the aristocracy."
According to Anderson, "English capitalism embraced and included both" aristocracy and bourgeoisie. The conflict between the two was limited to two bourgeois victories, the Reform Bill of 1832 and the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. After this, the bourgeoisie lost its nerve. Aristocracy and bourgeosie were transformed into one ruling class by the elite universities and the public schools. The relationship of the two in this symbiosis was dictated largely by the aristocracy. The bourgeoisie tried to become as aristocratic as possible, and it was largely succesful. The combination of aristocracy and bourgeoisie created "a single hegemonic class."
The English proletariat was the first of its kind. It "had to invent everything - tactics, strategy, ideas, values, organization - from the start." In the early 19th century, it fought hard - first in the name of Owenism, then for Reform, finally for Chartism. With Chartism ended the "heroic age" of the English proletariat, and a "deep caesura in English working-class history supervened."
Anderson thinks that the failure of the English working class was ultimately caused by its being immature. The movement could not draw on socialism, the Communist Manifesto was written just before its downfall. This view is highly problematic. First of all, it is not clear how important socialist ideology is to the success of the working class. The ideological sophistication of the Bolsheviks hardly lead to the triumph of the Russian working man. The more pragmatic social democratic parties in the Nordic countries have brough about probably the best deal for workers anywhere - the Nordic welfare state. Anderson's doctrinaire Marxism makes him ignore this type of reformism. It was important in Britain as well, especially in the period Anderson labels the 'caesura' of the working class movement. In this period, "trade unions, trades councils, T.U.C., co-ops, and the rest" were built (Thompson, 1978: 71). In other words, the collective power of the working class was considerably enhanced. But for Anderson this is nothing, since the real objective is for the working class to seize state power directly. His analysis ignores the real advances that were made in the day-to-day lives of ordinary workers.
"By the end of the nineteenth century, Britain had seized the largest empire in history, one qualitatively distinct from all its rivals, which saturated and 'set' British society in a mould it has retained to this day."
Anderson argues that the Empire is crucially important to understanding the type of leadership that pervades Britain to the present day. The Empire institutionalized the "aristocratic, amateur, and 'normatively' agrarian" model of leadership in Britain. In the twentieth century this has meant an obsolescent type of rule, and the economic consequences following from this.
Perhaps more importantly, Anderson argues that "national-imperial mystification" had a profound impact on the English working class. It was
deflected from undistracted engagement with the class exploiting them. This was the real - negative - achievement of social-imperialism. It created a powerful 'national' framework which in normal periods insensibly mitigated social contradictions and at moments of crisis transcended them altogether.
In other words, the ruling class kept the workers at bay by the spectacle of Empire. Ultimately this culminated in the working class staunchly supporting the British war effort in the First World War, contrary to all communist doctrine.
This argument is weak for a very simple reason. All the working classes of Europe enthusiastically supported their governments that initiated the holocaust of the Great War. The British case is in no way peculiar.
This points to a general difficulty in Anderson's approach. His method is necessarily comparative, since he is trying to prove how the history of British capitalism has led to the peculiarly British crisis of the 1960s. But to show that the history of British capitalism is unique, or to substantiate claims such as 'the English bourgeois revolution was the most incomplete' or that 'the British Empire deepened the weakness of the British working class' one must provide empirical examples of other countries which were different. Anderson never does this. His argument cannot be considered anything but a failure in this respect.
"Alone of major European nations, England emerged undefeated and unoccupied from two world wars, its social structure untouched by external shocks or discontinuities."
This seems the most persuasive part of Anderson's argument. In other European countries, the world wars produced momentous changes. The Hohenzollerns fell from power in Germany, the Austro-Hungarian empire was dissolved, the Romanov monarchy fell in Russia. In Britain, victories in both world wars enabled the obsolescent ruling class of aristocracy and bourgeoisie to remain in power. But Anderson ignores one obvious case - the United States. The differences are important - the United States had no hereditary aristocracy - but the similarity is striking. The United States won both world wars as well, and like Britain, its internal order was not fundamentally challenged by world events. But American capitalism did not face the kind of crisis Anderson is describing.
Where does all this lead? According to Anderson, to the hegemony of the English ruling class. Borrowing Gramsci's term, Anderson argues that the ruling class in Britain rules not only by owning the means of production, but by controlling the values and the whole world view of British society. He distinguishes two types of classes - hegemonic and corporate. Hegemonic classes rule hegemonically or attempt to do so. Corporate classes accept the hegemony of another class, and attempt to further their interests within this context. Anderson maintains that the fundamental problem of the English working class movement and hence of British society is that the working class is not hegemonic.
According to Anderson, the English working class has not sought to remake society in its own image since the early 19th century. It has been content to seek reforms within an aristocratic/bourgeois hegemony. It is not quite clear why this is a problem. We return again to Anderson's Marxism. According to Marxist doctrine, reformism is not enough, since the true social problem lies in the ownership pattern of the means of production. It is not sufficient to have welfare legislation, for instance; it is necessary to abolish bourgeois property altogether. Hence, Anderson has such a low opinion of reformism. But as I have already argued, this is a very limited view. It ignores the fact that the lives of working people have improved dramatically in the past hundred years or so, and the collective power of labour through trade unions is formidable. Only a truly doctrinaire Marxist can dismiss this.
Anderson also seems to assume that the alternative to aristocratic/bourgeois hegemony is working class hegemony. He again ignores the American example, but this is a mistake. Surely in the United States capitalist hegemony is exceptionally strong. Hardly anyone questions the capitalist nature of the society. Reform is sought within this context. American capitalism is perhaps the single most succesful capitalism anywhere. With such overwhelming bourgeois hegemony in America, should not American capitalism suffer from the maladies that have weakened Britain? Anderson's underlying theme is that capitalist hegemony is the structural cause of the 'present crisis' in Britain. The solution is working class hegemony. It is obvious that Anderson's model does not work.
In many respects, Anderson's essay shows what Marxist history can be at its worst. He assumes that the English Civil War was about economics, not religion, but he does not provide an argument for this. He simply asserts it, as it is in line with his Marxist approach. His discussion of the 'bourgeois revolution' in England also shows that he is trying to compare the actual English case with a completely hypothetical model. What is a pure bourgeois revolution? The French Revolution? This is obviously Anderson's assumption. But is the French Revolution really the model of a bourgeois revolution? It may be more pure in Anderson's sense than other bourgeois revolutions, but if so, it is an anomalous case. There was no pure bourgeois revolution in Germany, there was capitalism imposed by the state from above. In Engels's words, the German bourgeoisie exchanged the right to rule for the right to make money. In Italy, the bourgeois Risorgimento failed. In Russia, there certainly was no bourgeois revolution. The state initiated industrial production because it needed to modernize economically in order to stay a European great power. And as Anderson tells us, the English Civil War was not a pure bourgeois revolution. Leaving the complexities of the French case aside, it seems like an anomaly. Anderson's argument seems to be reduced to the assertion that British capitalism is obsolescent because British history isn't French.
Anderson's argument fails because it is comparative, but not explictly so. If he had stated that he was comparing Britain to certain other countries, and then given empirical examples of how those countries differ from Britain, his argument would be much stronger. Alas, his assertions could not be maintained if such examples were used. One cannot have history without theory, but what is much worse than pure empiricism is sophisticated theory with no empiricism. Anderson's essay represents one dead end leading from the abundantly fruitful historical doctrine of Marx.
Anderson, P. (1992) 'Origins of the Present Crisis' in his English Questions
Howell, D. (2005) Lecture and seminar on Anderson (York
, University of York
Thompson, E.P. (1978) 'The Peculiarities of the English' in his The Poverty of Theory and other essays
(London: Merlin Press)